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How Valuable are Citizen Volunteers in Scientific Research?


I have always been fond of helping out with conservation projects and doing my bit for science, but the idea of participating in real scientific research can be a daunting thought! Luckily, you don’t need a PhD to get involved in research! Citizen science involves the work of volunteers collecting data such as water quality or monitoring of species abundance; leaving the data analysis and scientific writing to the ‘real’ scientists, (phew!) This form of data collection has been used for over a century and is particularly useful in conservation biology, environmental protection, and natural resource management.


Why is it Useful?

Projects such as the Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count in the US, (which was one of the first projects of its kind) have utilised Citizen Scientists for over 115 years now. This approach broadens the scope of research as projects can run across exceptional spatial and temporal scales, expanding the horizons of what scientists can achieve.

This method of ecological data collection is useful as a lot of scientific projects are underfunded; they cannot afford to hire professional scientists when thousands of data sources are required. Scientists can speed up field detection by increasing the number of people making observations as well as picking up rare phenomena. Thereby allowing scientists to confront enormous issues such as climate change as the threat of falling biodiversity across the globe means we must have access to rapidly changing patterns of species distribution, dispersal, habitat information and population size.

This method of data collection is becoming increasingly popular with the rising accessibility of large-scale databases through the internet and Geographic Information System (GIS) enabled web applications, enabling them to complement hypothesis-driven research. With the rise in smartphone usage there has also been huge growth in app-based monitoring systems like ‘BirdWatch’. Keep an eye out for our next post, where we will discuss this technology in more detail.


How is it utilised?

Citizen Scientists can be used in monitoring projects to discover patterns across space/time and answer specific questions, such as: How many individuals of this species are there? Are there differences in species number at different times of year? The data obtained can then be utilised by government agencies, policy makers, professional scientists, and other decision makers, ultimately driving and informing management and policy decisions as well as improving public knowledge and inspiring action. Examples of how this all comes together will, again, be explored in our next post.


How to ensure you are an effective citizen scientist

Sounds good, right? There are, however, some issues with this citizen contribution toward scientific method. The biggest limitation being the requirement for specialised knowledge, training, and equipment. Projects must be correctly planned, designed, carried out and evaluated, whilst data integrity must be maintained through methods such as standardised sampling procedures and effort controls. To ensure that you are making the best contribution to projects that interest you, it is advisable to deepen your knowledge around the relevant topics and project procedures/design. By building on your understanding of important subjects such as biodiversity, conservation, ecology and natural history through our course at https://www.beeanatureguide.org.uk/the-course you can ensure you are an effective and highly useful citizen scientist.


To read more and take a look at some of the projects you can get involved in, be sure to check out our next post!


Elena



Sources

Bonney, R., et al., 2009. Citizen Science: A Developing Tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. BioScience, 59(11), pp. 977-984.


Dickinson, J. L., et al., 2012. The current state of citizen science as a tool for ecological research and public engagement. Frontiers in Ecology & Environment, 10(6), pp. 291-297.


Dickinson, J. L., et al., 2010. Citizen Science as an Ecological Research Tool: Challenges and Benefits. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution & Systematics, 41, pp. 149-172.


Mckinley, D. C., et al., 2017. Citizen science can improve conservation science, natural resource management, and environmental education. Biological Conservation, 208, pp. 1-16.


Woodland Trust, 2020. Nature's Calendar; Species We Record. [Online] Available at: https://naturescalendar.woodlandtrust.org.uk/what-we-record-and-why/species-we-record/ [Accessed 08 09 2020].

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